Book review: J by Howard Jacobson

Dystopian state of denial has never felt so terrifying , writes William Leith

At first, reading this novel feels like looking for the key to a mystery – you read carefully, searching for clues. Then you find the key, and find yourself reading with even more urgency. There’s a sense of mounting horror. We are in a world where people tell themselves that something terrible might or might not have happened in the fairly recent past. It’s a specific mindset and, as the reader, you’re desperate to untangle it.

We’re in a place called Port Reuben, which, we are told, used to be called Ludgvennok. It’s a town in what might well be Cornwall. It’s the future – two generations or so from where we are now. It’s an old-fashioned future – lo-tech, with rudimentary communications, no internet and so on. Old stuff – CDs, records, even furniture – is frowned on. There’s a Stalinist vibe about the place. People live ramshackle, provincial lives. And they all seem to have Jewish surnames.

We’re in a culture of forgetting – or, more pertinently, a culture of denial. The catchphrase for the event they are in denial about is “What Happened, If It Happened”. Whatever it was, it happened in the 2020s.

People have shadowy parents and shamed grandparents. The Jewish names came after the catastrophe that everybody wants to forget. Or almost everybody. Howard Jacobson is brilliant at making you wonder what a state of denial feels like. How it creeps up on everybody, and how it co-exists with an occult state of knowing.

The story concerns a couple. He’s a wood-carver called Kevern Cohen, she’s called Ailinn Solomons and makes arty flowers. Kevern has OCD; Ailinn is terrified of being pursued. They have sex. It’s the first time, she says, that she hasn’t felt invaded.

As the horrors of the past come into view, we piece things together. A conflagration in the Middle East, with appalling consequences, followed by generations of guilt and denial. A man writes on official notepaper printed with slogans: “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie. The Overexamined Life Is Not Worth Living. Yesterday Is A Lesson We Can Only Learn By Looking At Tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Kevern and Ailinn take a trip to London – “the necropolis”. It’s faded, crumbling and dangerous. And the past is rearing up again. Denial doesn’t work.

This is a new departure for Jacobson: futuristic, dystopian, not, it seems, the world as we know it. But as we peer through the haze we see something taking shape. It’s horrible. It’s monstrous. Read this for yourself and you’ll see what it is.

J by Howard Jacobson by Jonathan Cape, £18.99

Originally published in Scotland on Sunday

Going to the Edinburgh Festival?

• Unsure what to see? Read all The Scotsman reviews
• What’s hot (or not): Browse the reviews by star rating
• Don’t miss a thing. Sign up to our daily email newsletter
• Join the conversation with #WOWFEST and follow it live